COLUMBUS, Ohio — There is no harm in Ohio State admitting it now.
When he took over at Ohio State, Chris Holtmann wasn’t sure what the ceiling would be for his first team, but it certainly didn’t seem like there would be a lot of headroom.
The knowledgeable visitors who popped in to watch some practices provided feedback that suggested the Buckeyes should shoot for an NIT bid instead of a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Even for the players who spent the preseason talking about wanting to prove the doubters wrong — and using polls that projected them to finish among the cellar-dwellers in the Big Ten as motivation — they couldn’t imagine this would be possible.
Sure, it might make for a nice story if these scrappy underdogs recognized something that nobody else did and expected everything that happened along the way to a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But it is actually more impressive that Ohio State had to deal with its own doubts before unexpectedly blossoming into one of the nation’s best teams with a chance to do something special, starting Thursday against South Dakota State.
Honesty is the best policy. And anybody being truthful at Ohio State will admit this remarkable turnaround came as a surprise, which is why it has been so entertaining.
“I was hoping we could play in some type of postseason,” Holtmann said. “And I knew how hard it was to get into this field, and I just wasn’t sure.
“But I was hopeful the season wouldn’t end after the Big Ten Tournament in February. Fortunately, it didn’t.”
Really, it had become apparent that Ohio State should set its sights higher than the NIT by January. And it was the upset over then-top-ranked Michigan State in the first week of the new year that proved the Buckeyes were truly becoming a team capable of making some noise by March.
Considering where Ohio State started after the relatively late coaching change with the program not parting ways with Thad Matta until the summer, the clear lack of depth on the roster and even questions about whether key cogs such as Keita Bates-Diop or Jae’Sean Tate could carry a team, there was never any reason to suspect something like this could happen. Betting on this resurgence was almost like expecting a high school video department could contend for an Oscar.
In hindsight, that might seem silly now that Bates-Diop is a bonafide leading man, one of the nation’s most talented players. Holtmann has shown that his early success as a coach has been no fluke. And while there still isn’t an overwhelming amount of depth, Ohio State’s role players have embraced their jobs and a style of play that consistently gives the team a chance to win every time out.
Across the board, the Buckeyes have exceeded expectations at every turn. So, there is really no reason by now to think that won’t continue once they get to Idaho.
“I mean, to be honest, with so much change and adversity and with how the first couple games went — of course, early on you’re going to have some doubts,” Tate said. “I think throughout the early part of the season where we started to jell more and get comfortable with the staff and with each other, we saw that element that we have that ‘it’ factor.
“Now that we know that we have it, I think that’s going to be good for us going up to Boise.”
The fact the Buckeyes are making that flight at all is impressive all on its own.
And after spending essentially the entire regular season proving people wrong, why stop now?
“No, no, no, I didn’t [expect this],” Holtmann said. “A No. 5 seed is really hard to get — it’s really hard to get. It’s interesting when you look at the numbers a little bit. It’s alarming in a lot of ways. Less than 20 percent of the teams in college basketball are playing in this thing right now. When you look to at-large berths, it’s just over 11 percent of college basketball teams get an at-large berth.
“You look around at your friends coaching and our guys with people they played with, a lot of those guys are sitting at home right now.”
Truthfully, Ohio State was supposed to be among them at this point.
There is no need for any revisionist history about that now because this is a feel-good story that doesn’t require any embellishment.